‘I want individuals. I am made up of queer points and I want so many answering needles,’ Lamb once said of himself – as concise and perceptive a summary of his essential nature as anyone would ever produce. He was an eccentric, a misfit, and one of the finest essayists of the age.
Charles Lamb was the youngest son of John Lamb and Elizabeth Field, born in 1775 at Crown Office Row, London, where his father was clerk to Samuel Salt, a Bencher (senior member of the Inns of Court) of the Inner Temple. He had an older brother, John (1763–1821), and a sister, Mary (1764–1847). He was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street, where he was a contemporary of Coleridge, as recalled in his essay, ‘Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago’.
Lamb spent vacations at Blakesware, a country house in Hertfordshire, where his grandmother was housekeeper. It was here that he met his first love, Ann Simmons, but her rejection of him in 1795 was such a shock that it precipitated a fit of insanity. By now he had begun a long career with the East India Company (1792–1825), which kept him in his office for nine hours a day, six days a week. He was always to regret not having gone to university, but he suffered from a stutter that made it impossible for him to pursue a career in the church (the usual destiny for men of his class and background). Instead, his ‘university’ would be his beloved London, where he was surrounded by his favourite things: old books, theatre, drink and good conversation.
On Thursday 22 September 1796 he came home from work to find that his sister Mary had stabbed their mother to death and wounded their father by embedding a fork in his head. He took her straight to the Islington Asylum, Fisher House, and saved her from permanent incarceration by agreeing in future to look after her at home, which he did for the rest of his life. This was the ‘strange calamity’ which cast its shadow over him when he was given an offstage role in Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison. He was only 21 years old, and these events determined the course of his future life. Subject to occasional relapses, his sister needed constant care, and he vowed to provide it. ‘We are in a manner marked,’ he would tell Coleridge.
Lamb’s early literary career was promising. He became known for his poetry, much of it inspired by the Unitarian theology that underpins Coleridge’s Religious Musings. In 1798 he published Blank Verse with Coleridge’s pupil and acolyte Charles Lloyd, which contained his best-known poem, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’. It is an inspired example of confessional verse in unrhymed stanzas derived from the Elizabethan dramatist Philip Massinger. Using this unexpected vehicle, Lamb manages to universalize his experience of the ‘day of horrors’ when he arrived home to find his mother dead and his sister with a carving-knife in her hand. Beginning with that, he reviews other losses he has sustained through his life, before concluding with the elegant refrain, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.’ Not only does it transcend the particular context out of which it comes, but it sets the tone for much of Lamb’s later prose writing, which also concerns the riches taken from us by time and circumstance.
It is worth emphasizing for a moment the fact that Lamb visited Coleridge at Nether Stowey in July 1797, at the beginning of the annus mirabilis. He there met Wordsworth and Dorothy for the first time, with whom he would enjoy a close friendship that lasted for the rest of his life. More important, Lamb understood the way in which Wordsworth and Coleridge were thinking from the outset, providing him with the most valuable education he could have received for his burgeoning career as a writer. Their beliefs and aspirations permeate his writings.
This can be observed in ‘Living without God in the World’, written at the height of the fashion for atheism, popular among those who espoused radical political ideologies. Wordsworth himself had been described by Coleridge as ‘a semi-atheist’, partly because of his former attachment to Godwinian philosophy. Coleridge, like Lamb, was devoutly religious, and both were adherents of Priestleyan Unitarianism. When he visited Coleridge at Nether Stowey in July 1797, Lamb met Wordsworth for the first time and almost certainly heard a reading of his play, The Borderers (1797). By then disillusioned with Godwinism, Wordsworth critiques it through his portrait of the amoral Rivers, who champions the law of an ‘independent intellect’. That phrase makes its way into Lamb’s poem as part of an attack on Godwinism, atheists, ‘Deists only in the name’, all of whom form a Jacobinical congregation united to ‘deny a God’.
In 1798 he published Rosamund Gray, a novella whose eponymous heroine was a thinly disguised portrait of Ann Simmons, and, in 1802, a play – John Woodvil, a Tragedy. Although Blank Verse made him sufficiently well-known to be portrayed in Gillray’s famous 1798 caricature of radical intellects, New Morality, Lamb’s talents did not lie in poetry. In subsequent years he turned to prose, often in collaboration with his sister. Together they produced Tales from Shakespear (1807) – so popular it has remained in print ever since; Mrs Leicester’s School and Poetry for Children (both 1809). These ventures helped turn him into one of the finest prose stylists of the day.
In the second decade of the nineteenth century he began to write for journals including Leigh Hunt’s Reflector, Examiner and Indicator. At the same time he cultivated his skills as the author of some of the most entertaining letters of the period, which also contain much critical disquisition. Then, in 1820, came the turning-point in his career; he was asked to contribute to John Scott’s London Magazine. Under the pseudonym ‘Elia’, Lamb began to publish what are now regarded as some of the finest essays in the history of English letters. In due course these were collected as Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). It was the glory of those essays to seek to retrieve, in fine romantic fashion, that instinct from which the adult has long been cut adrift – a sense of the numinous and magical. They are a distinctive and inimitable combination of romantic yearning for the intensity of childhood vision, combined with an underlying fear that the world may turn out to be no more than the materialist nightmare – matter in motion.
Elia’s art lay to some extent in his manner; as Lamb told his publisher, John Taylor, ‘The Essays want no Preface: they are all Preface. A Preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else.’ (Lucas, Letters, II, 350) Doubtless it was the persona of Elia that enabled Lamb to indulge his prejudices and whims with a freedom he would not have enjoyed otherwise. Such was his success that he was soon the highest-paid contributor to the London Magazine; indeed, still turning up at his office at East India House, he became a literary celebrity, being invited to dine with the Lord Mayor at the Guildhall.
In 1819 he fell in love again, with an actress, Fanny Kelly; she refused his proposal of marriage, but remained a friend. Perhaps she simply could not contemplate a life spent living with both Lamb and his sister, whose bouts of insanity continued, or perhaps she did not believe that they were suited to one another. He found consolation by entertaining groups of friends at home on Thursday evenings, riotous occasions that were mythologized by Hazlitt in one of his finest essays, ‘On the Conversation of Authors’:
There was Lamb himself, the most delightful in the course of the evening. His serious conversation, like his serious writing, is his best. No one ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things in half a dozen half-sentences as he does. His jests scald like tears: and he probes a question with a play upon words. What a keen, laughing, hare-brained vein of home-felt truth! What choice venom! How often did we cut into the haunch of letters, while we discussed the haunch of mutton on the table! He always made the best pun, and the best How we skimmed the cream of criticism! How we got into the heart of controversy! How we picked out the marrow of authors! (Wu, viii, 32)
Lamb’s eventual retirement from the East India Company was something of a disappointment, as he moved to the London suburbs of Enfield and Edmonton. There he felt increasingly exiled from the excitements of the town, and Mary’s occasional return visits to the asylum left him isolated and lonely. He died of erysipelas after a bad fall on 27 December 1834 and was buried in Edmonton; Mary died in 1847 and was interred alongside him.